Zonkey Boot is a special footwear brand out of Austria. As a designer, when your other half plays a very significant role in the process, it lightens the load. It is special to you—furthermore your pride and joy. Michael Rollig is in the best situation possible. Soon to be wife Alexandra Diaconu; who he met while she was interviewing him for a Forbes magazine cover story, now helps him make critical decisions on shoe-making. Women know what kind of footwear they like on a man, and this duo uses this to their full advantage, creating beautiful, well-made footwear.
What is your first memory of handmade shoes? Why did it make such an impression on you?
I inherited three pairs of bespoke shoes from my grandfather who was a waiter from his twelfth year on. I remember my grandmother going with me at noon time to the old style Viennese Kaffehaus (coffee house) where he worked, to bring him a fresh pair of shoes for a change. All his shoes were made from kid leather (Chevreau), which was light in weight and soft. He was very fussy about his shoes and always had them re-soled in time at the shoemaker who made them. For New Years Eve, when all the waiters had to work in tails, he had a pair of black Pumps with a silk bow. They must have cost half a month’s salary and he wore them once a year.
How does one go from being an industrial designer to shoe designer?
By chance, it must have been in the middle of the 1980s when Ludwig Reiter hired me to design shoes for them. At that time one of the Reiter family’s sons took over the business and felt that he needed a designer which had no clue about shoes in order to develop a genuine new product from the bottom. The construction drawings I produced looked like Memphis furniture (see: Ettore Sottsass) and were impossible to read and transform into wearable shoes. I soon understood that to transform my ideas into shoes I had to learn pattern cutting and last, making from scratch. Luckily there was an exceptional patient gentleman, who was almost retired and had worked in the company all his professional life as a pattern cutter. He took me under his wings. It didn’t take long and I was completely captured by shoe making and I felt released from being an experimental industrial designer with all the “post modern” crap.
Since the beginning of my career as a shoe designer (if you can call it a career) I was doing classic men’s shoes. I still like them and believe that classic shoes and suits have to be conservative enough to be sexy. They must have the odor of honor or at least money and power. But running for years a bespoke and handmade shoe workshop made me realize that neither my customers nor I are always in the mood of being honorable, powerful, and rich. We are also traveling and need non-voluminous, lightweight loafers, or we want to hang out in the summer in a neighborhood café, so a moccasin to be worn bare foot is needed. Or we just don’t want to care about the clothes we grab from the closet and need a shoe which goes with anything. Or we want to make an excursion to areas where the pavement is not polished. In other words, urban life today demands for more than classic shoes and this applies to many of us. That is the basic concept behind our different groups; they are meant for different purposes—classic welts, casual welts, urban sports, moccasins, travel, and leisure. Alexandra and I were just eager to make all these types of shoes for different purposes.
What is the biggest or most ongoing inspiration behind Zonkey Boot?
Alexandra! Her instinct for the right material and colors is essential to the variety of the collection. I am more of an advanced tinker; I get my inspiration rather by the technical possibilities the factory or suppliers offer. I need materials, tools, workshop or machines, and a factory to detect options for new shoes.
How important are shoes in a man’s wardrobe? How does one distinguish if a shoe is well made?
My wife Alexandra says, “Good shoes make up for cheap clothes—cheap shoes ruin the best clothes.” I have met very impressing men who had no interest in their personal wardrobe and I met plenty of idiots who had their sneakers spit shined and the new laces fitted by the shoemaker. I like men who don’t try to impress anybody.
I still believe in brands reflecting a company’s reputation. It is not the consumers’ obligation to know everything about the making and construction and materials of a shoe. Being attentive to the things you use should be enough to develop your own criteria for quality.
How has your personal style developed? How has it changed over the years?
- 7 – 9 years, Cowboy & Detective outfit
- 10 – 13 years, Beatles
- 14 – 16 years, Stones
- 17 – 20 years, Blow Up (movie by Antonioni); Start to search for military; chino pants in second hand army stores for the next 30 years
- 21 – 25 years, Architect look; jeans, grandfather’s bespoke shoes, and corduroy jacket
- 26 – 30 years, Preppy; discovery of tailor made suits.
- 31 – 54 years, Shift from Viennese bespoke tradition to Italian tailors; Occasional break outs to the Brits.
- 54 – 56 years, Return to jeans after 20 years absence; 501s and its siblings still preferred. I don’t roll chinos up. I like Anatomica jeans and I am slowly taking an interest in sweat suits because I like Fidel Castro much better in his Addidas than in his combat outfit. The older you get the more casual your clothing should be.
You have such a rich history in the shoe business. If you weren’t making shoes what would you be doing?
Building baidarkas (aleutan skin boats—similar to eskimo kayaks—made from a wooden frame and skin cover sewn on it). These boats are fitted to its owner’s measurements. No construction drawings are needed, just a handful of tools and a lot of experience.
Favorite places to travel?
Alexandra and I like to go to places where we already have been and where we know people. For the big cities we rediscovered Paris recently. New York and Tokyo are all time favorites. For the smaller towns we love Bassano del Grappa, where the factory is located and other places in northern Italy. Moreover we both like to make bicycle trips in the countryside around Vienna.
What’s next for Zonkey Boot?
Pursuing the development of our shoes to make them better, distinctively beautiful, and unmistakable.